It has been five years now since Harrods introduced its dress code, but people still get terribly upset about it. Mortified Londoners just cannot get over being refused entry to a mere shop. Instead of taking their custom elsewhere or simply putting some trousers on, they write aggrieved letters to the newspapers, which still print them.
For those of you who have been doing all your shopping elsewhere, the Harrods dress code can be summarised as follows: no beachwear, no backpacks, no riff-raff.
Under the al-Fayeds, Harrods had become a victim of its own success. Sumptuous displays and some striking refurbishment meant that everyone wanted to have a look around, but that was often all they wanted. Bona fide customers could not see the merchandise for half-dressed tourists with telephoto lenses snapping the wet fish.
Banning photography and selling more postcards was an obvious move but how was the management to keep out the rest of the coach party element? As the voice of the chairman's office puts it: 'Quite frankly, our lady customers didn't appreciate queuing up for their bagel or baguette next to someone in crotch-high shorts and a vest showing their hairy armpits. The dress code was the logical step.
The core of local clientele was thrilled (60 per cent of Harrods customers live within three miles of the shop in the so-called Tiara Triangle). Dowagers no longer walked in fear of encountering the revolting spectacle of an unwashed Swede at the vegetable counter.
Fading pop stars, predictably, used the code as a mechanism for getting their pictures in the paper. One of these, described by the Harrods spokesman as 'this Luke Goss person, went along in some fetchingly torn trousers to be turned away. Ensuing tabloid coverage gleefully pounced on the fact that Harrods had ejected a Badly Dressed Person who had Lots of Money.
The wonderful thing about the dress code is that Harrods does not care if you do have lots of money. You are not allowed in dressed like that.
The press dutifully took up cudgels on behalf of the underdressed - conveniently overlooking the fact that London pubs had been refusing refreshment to any working man in 'soiled clothing for years. And have you ever tried buying a McDonald's with no shirt on?
Harrods insists that higher standards enhance the pleasure of shopping but there are other considerations. The odd half-naked megastar may slip through the net, but your average topless backpacker in cut-off jeans is unlikely to be the last of the big spenders. Harrods is not a democracy, it is not a public service, nobody has a right to be there. It is a shop. It is private property and it only lets people inside if it thinks it will profit from the exchange.
A small shop has an armoury of tricks to exclude the browser: no prices in the window, admission by buzzer only, French staff, that sort of thing. But the department store is powerless to prevent itself being used as a luxurious railway station by all and sundry who graze their way through the food halls, repair their lipstick in perfumery and straighten their clothing and feed the baby in the powder room.
Marks and Spencer's customers were once famous for trying on their purchases in the ladies' room of other department stores to make sure they had bought the right size. Can you blame the big stores for wanting to limit the passing trade to those with money to spend?
The question is has Harrods gone far enough? You still cannot move for gawpers on the ground floor and some tourists can still be seen eating their own sandwiches in the Dress Circle cafeteria. Serious shoppers are defecting to the increasingly glamorous Selfridges. Harrods cannot very well install turnstiles. The only answer must surely be to beef up the dress code and exclude time-wasters once and for all.
But how can you sort the sightseer from the shopper? Patchouli oil is a dead giveaway, as are shaved heads and body-piercing. Husbands and wives in matching polyester trouser suits are not usually good for much more than the odd lavender bag. But where does one draw the line?
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